Hairy Women: The Forbidden Fruit



The following is a review of a women’s shaver taken from Amazon, entitled “Smooth as a babies bum” written, perhaps, by a modern day Ruskin:


“I'm writing this on behalf of my wife as she does not have access to a computer....I bought this razor with extra blades for her for Xmas but ended up giving it [to] her before.... She told me she wished she had used this a long time ago despite her fears of cutting herself and having a rash…so she's a happy bunny and so am I not having to have a hedgehog in bed next to me..:)”


Now, I’d hate to succumb to my twisted sense of humour and imagine a wife, chained to a radiator with no access to a computer, with the only gift for “Xmas” a cheaply branded, pink disposable razor – but at least she no longer resembles a hedge hog, right?


I am a “hedge hog”, aka, a hairy woman. I am also a Feminist. But (apparently surprisingly) that is where the stereotype ends. I run an online vintage fashion business and arts collective, I’m a freelance photographer, illustrator and artist. I am in a healthy, loving relationship with my (male) partner, and I occasionally wear a pretty dress – leg hair and all.

Recently, I chose two of my close friends to model for me in a series of photographs, “Forbidden Fruit”, taken at the same time of writing. I spoke to both of them in depth before shooting, and each had very different attitudes bound by one belief: that female body hair is totally fucking normal.

Lou’s take on body hair, like her other political and social stances, is to create change by action. Along side her political documentaries, pop-up art exhibitions and organised protests, she plans on creating a pube-friendly swim-wear line, claiming:

 

“The bikini line is a battle line. It restricts how much pubic hair you are allowed to have. Anything crossing the line is indecent, unacceptable or radical… Why not have the option to renegotiate that border should you feel less inclined to depilate? I'm an advocate of bigger bikinis, baggier bikinis, long bikinis or tiny bikinis with pubic hair spilling out, refusing to acknowledge the nebulous zone that we call the 'Bikini Line - £15’…”

I was pretty bemused, after reading Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman” in which she uses the “HA!” approach to sexism, that both Moran and Lou recounted their friends military routine in which they plan their dates around, on the off-chance their “foof” might be seen. More alarmingly was Lou’s story echoing Moran’s of the frequency of women “capitalising” on a fresh wax by sleeping with someone they’re barely interested in: why go through all that pain and cost for nothing?

Alice (the brunette model)’s approach is a milder one. She is scarcely swayed by peer pressure, or, at least, hasn’t been since the first pubic shave that felt “like some kind of soft-core self mutilation process”. No, Alice, like myself, has been fortunate enough to share her close, significant relationships with those that barely consider our body hair as an “abnormality”. Besides, my partner is well aware that if he did find cause to complain he’d have to take to the daily shaving routine, too. If I have to trudge through the bullshit, I’m taking him with me.

 I adore Alice’s fluffy pits, of which she admits:

 

 “although I never felt comfortable taking the blade to my feathery underarms, the street, the park and the school changing rooms (along with their respective occupants) were just not as forgiving an environment as the horny man’s bed when it came to silently asserting one’s right to be hairy.

Then I met Mae. She rocked a septum piercing back when hot girls didn’t and under each of her slender golden arms was an inky black firework of hair. That was all I needed to never go back. Do I have smellier, dirtier armpits as a result of not shaving them? No, the hair acts like a wick and carries the sweat away from your skin, meaning it doesn’t sit there building up bacteria, actually.”

 

I make a conscious decision to use women with at least some degree of natural body hair in each of my nude shoots. I, personally, see it as aesthetically quite beautiful; it has a degree of delicacy and honesty to it that adds to the shoot rather than detracts from it; such as a freshly waxed “designer vagina”, encouraging a level of undesired pornographic sexuality that is usually inappropriate. Besides, I think hairy women are incredibly sexy - that level of self-confidence should be a quality that’s celebrated in women, not condemned.

The blatancy of horror (or confusion due to my appearance not cohering to typical “hard-core feminist/lesbian/French” negative stereotypes) when my un-shaven armpits are exposed (female body hair is only ever “exposed”, never merely “shown”) on the tube, is obvious. I am asking, simply, why? It seems we cannot merely state our choice of body hair, but must argue for it’s existence, or at least conform to social stereotypes that even feminist writers cower away from.

 

How many hours do you spend removing body hair per week? And how many work hours amount to paying for the products in which you remove it with? Hair removal is a multi-billion dollar industry ($2.1 Billion in the US in 2011), not to mention the extra addition of 5% “luxury tax” that women’s razors inherit, like tampons, when men’s razors go tax-free.

In a young Western society that is proud of having broken most established taboos, (many of which are based around sexuality and the body), women’s body hair remains an area of deliberate avoidance.  Any mention of body hair in advertising is based around its removal (of which no hair is featured on the models to begin with) or reference to sexual fetish. All consideration of women’s body hair, in short, is regarded only as medical and cosmetic interest, with the two being extensions of each other, as both carry the aim of removing it.

I also find the relentless topic of women’s weight and dieting confusing: why should we not allow our body weight to be dictated to us, argue against it, buy texts on how to control it, yet totally accept the challenge of being constantly, unnaturally hairless, rarely ever raising it as a topic for debate?

Women’s femininity is forever measured by their “lack” of masculine attributes. Our “lack” of dominance, a “lack” of humour, a “lack” of physical mass and a “lack” of body hair. Men’s bodies, in contrast, “exist” as male, unlike women, who must “achieve” femininity. As Moran quotes Simone De Beauvoir in  ‘How To Be A Woman’: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

We need a rearticulation in the way we approach female body hair. An ex-partner of mine once came home from work in shock after having to teach an all-male biology class that women did, in fact, grow pubic, armpit and leg hair. Pornography (the obvious culprit to a vast majority of the ‘hairy taboo’) had apparently clarified the belief that all women are (naturally!) totally hairless. These were boys on the cusp of puberty and sexual encounters, as would be the girls they shared those encounters with. One wonders what effect this misinformation will have on the girls at the forefront of conforming to those pressures, and thus the vicious cycle begins… A cycle of mental and physical routine shrouded in anxiety and substantial pain, and, alarmingly, an increased risk of STI’s and other infections, contrary to the belief that being bald is “more hygienic” as mentioned by Alice earlier.

I want to be clear that the themes of my photography and arguments are not based on a plea to return to the “natural body” (or the idea that this is even a possibility) but that the notion of our bodies being “created” by strict taboos is plainly wrong. Although a truism of most anthropological and critical discourse that the body is always refashioned by the culture which it enters, our evolution has led us to the ultimate divinity: choice. It is my wish, therefore, for there to be absolute freedom of choice with the removal or growth of body hair, un-dictated by secondary opinion, the media and social pressures. For there to be as much choice in bodily fluff as with hairstyle; a total acceptance of that person’s appearance (you may even quite like the retro look, it is getting chillier, after all.) We should be spending our time on far greater issues, not fuelling a war on hair growth that’ll always win by growing back. And, at least if you do truly decide you’d rather depilate, don’t let the husband write the product review for you (unless he’s using it, too.)

See the full feature, including an interview with Dazed and Confused Magazine, here.

FEMINISM: A STALLED REVOLUTION

(Published by Femmeuary - an annual pro-feminist magazine)

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” So wrote the Irish novelist Rebecca West nearly 100 years ago. The confusion is much less today, with feminism as an accepted label for many women in the arts, media or politics.  The highly successful lesbian novelist Sarah Waters asks “Surely the real question should be not “Why are you feminist?” but “Why aren’t you one?”

 

I run a small business which enables me to be financially independent enough to work towards my ultimate end goal: to solely earn a living from my creative work, be it painting, photography, whatever.  I see my sex as an interesting hurdle that shouldn’t be there as a hurdle in the first place - however, it is. I would openly admit to rather being born male - however, I was not. Luckily I am fortunate enough to be in a position where success is a possibility, and sex does not govern the opportunities granted to me. There are, of course, other women making it on their own; the ladettes, out for a good night on the same terms as men.  There are the career women, who have proven that they are as good as, if not better than, men, and who have overcome barriers to get to the top. There are the supermodels, who project an impossible picture of untouchable frail female beauty. Then there are the women who reject marriage, monogamy and mother-hood, at least until they hear their biological clock ticking.

 

These women are all making it in a man’s world. The ubiquitous assumption is – in an era sometimes described as “post-feminist” – that the inequality women once faced has now been overcome.  If millions of women don’t match up to the image, then they have to “catch up”. The libertarianism philosophy is one of self-help – change or suffer the consequences. But by definition most of us cannot be winners, and operate with one hand tied behind us.  In particular, women’s oppression is not a thing of the past, and the inequality is still very much with us. We live in the distorted reality of a stalled revolution, the reflection of real changes in women’s lives that opened up the promise of true liberation, but have not delivered on that promise.

While some women have hit the jackpot since the 1980s onwards, most have struggled to tread water or have even gone under.  Single mothers are amongst those being hit the hardest in the UK by the Conservative-led Government’s cuts. A government which is still by far a male preserve for the “top jobs” and who is run by a man that thinks little of patronisingly telling a female opposition MP to “calm down, dear” during a commons exchange.  When such a small percentage, 146 female to 502 male MP’s, of women have so little say in the policies which shape our lives, bearing in mind 50% of the population is female, we must think of what the effects are of being so underrepresented really are.

 

Structurally, society is built with millions of women at the bottom of the pile. In Britain, even full time workers will earn £4 for every £5 earned by a man. Part timers have wages, which on average, are only two thirds of those of men, making “Women’s work” and low paid work often synonymous.

Sexual discrimination at work is only one part of women’s continued inequality. The widespread use of sexual images help create an atmosphere where women’s sexuality is seen as something to be bought and sold, and this has had new and dire consequences on the attitudes women share towards sex themselves. When the pioneering gynecologist Helena Wright asked her patients in the 1930s what they got out of sex, they blinked uncomprehendingly. Since then, times have changed. Cherie Blair, the former Prime Minister’s wife, openly declared that she and Tony regularly enjoy sex five times a night. It is perceived today that anyone not joining in the sexual revolution – as decreed by the media and sex industries – is seen as hopelessly old fashioned and prudish. Young women would rather risk  an STI or repeat abortion than to be declared as unwilling and therefore “not worthy” of a man’s time. These new attitudes of women, along with the resurgence in “Lad” culture, are only worsening the situation as young men grow up believing sex to be a social obligation, influenced by the ever-increasing accessibility of free online pornography. The more sex is void of personal attachment, the better, it seems.

 

The right of sexual freedom has become the right for women’s bodies to be sold in every lap-dancing bar and on every magazine cover. Nevertheless, we can’t  simply address this by just by changing the individual behavior of men. We have to change the society that spends billions on weapons and war, which allows growing gaps in the rich and poor, while still expecting childcare on the cheap, and which expects women to work for less than men.

Women’s lives are hard: that’s true on a global scale. Women routinely and in their hundreds of thousands leave their own children to travel across the world to look after other people’s children. Those who stay in countries like the Philippines find themselves working in sweatshop conditions, subject to long hours, poor wages and sexual harassment. For many women in the Southern Hemisphere, highly exploitative work is the only alternative to emigration or prostitution.  Work on the land falls disproportionately on women, who do the vast majority of unpaid work in the world. In 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded a song for their album ‘Some Time in New York City’ called “Woman is the Nigger of the World”.  The single led to some controversy – ironically, mostly among those white and male. Lennon, in an interview about the single, admitted to initially defensively arguing against Yoko – she had come up with the phrase – before he altered his own attitudes towards women, quoting James Connolly, the Irish socialist rebel, by referring to women as the “slaves of the slaves”. Lennon went on to get support from Ron Dellums, the Co-founder and chairman of The Congressional black Caucus, currently Mayor of Oakland, who wrote the following in relation to the Lennon’s use of the word “nigger”:

 

“If you define ‘niggers’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society are defined by others, then Good News! You don’t have to be black to be a ‘nigger’ in this society. Most of the people in America are ‘niggers’.

I cannot help but agree with the song’s sentiments.  A capitalist society depends upon profiting from the labour of those at the bottom of the pyramid for the benefit of those at the top. When capitalism developed from the heart of the feudal society, it did so as an economic system based on the free market and the free exchange of labour. Nevertheless, this economic revolution was accompanied by new ideas, which stressed the freedom of the individual, freedom of religion and freedom of thought in general. It was during these revolutions that ideas about what could loosely be called women’s freedom and equality came to the fore.  On a more practical level, however, the consequences of a totally equal platform for women means the fundamental break down of basic capitalist structure. The reality of capitalism means liberation and equality of class, sex and race cannot and will never be achieved as long as profit remains the soul focus. Equal playing fields are simply not profitable.

 

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels began their lifelong collaboration in the 1840s, and wrote about women from the very beginning. In one of Marx’s earliest works, ‘The Holy Family’, he paraphrases from Charles Fourier this statement about women:

The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by women’s progress towards freedom, because here, in the relation of women to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation.”

Engels also wrote, “The employment of the wife dissolves the family utterly and of necessity”. Today the family is still a central institution of capitalist society. However it has been changing, along with women’s positions within it, for the past few decades. As a result, the family is suffering.  In the UK, by the spring of 2005, nearly a quarter of children lived in a family headed by a lone parent, compared to just 7 percent as recently as 1972. In 2005 more than four out of every ten births occurred out of marriage, more than four times the proportion of 1974.

The reality of these changes is not only transforming the ‘traditional’ family, but also, the relationship between men and women. Some believe as greater equality is reached between the sexes, that this will, in turn, disadvantage men. This could perhaps account for the level of frustrating defensiveness I am often confronted with in conversation when examining the level of sexism and inequality that still goes on today. I am lucky to be in a relationship where I can say that my boyfriend is, perhaps, more of a feminist than I am. It is due to his capability in understanding, sympathising and verbalising these issues, based on his knowledge of the principles of socialism and equal rights that I am able to understand women’s issues of equality from a male perspective. This helps me to understand the possible threat to a sex’s opportunities when the other sex rises to compete with those same roles. Such a bold change of societies structure does not come without it’s problems, but do the benefits out-way those problems? Yes, certainly.

 

 We are living in the era of the ‘token woman’. In a time of almost militant political correctness, we have got used to acknowledging the one woman placed on the panel of a television show. It’s a competitive field, and those that manage to make it as female comedians are very often over-weight, old, Jewish (as Jewish humor, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprecation, is almost masculine by definition) or conventionally unattractive.  Perhaps it is precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence, it could simply be that men do not want women to be funny, let alone funny and attractive.  They want women as an audience, not as rivals.  Female-dominated panel shows, such as “Loose Women”, typically involve the discussion of trivial and banal topics, whilst the important issues, (economics, politics, world news) are discussed by predominantly male panels. The message is more than obvious: That the inclusion of the token woman is nothing more than a cynical attempt to appear “modern”. When it comes down to the hard stuff, the gender balance is still predominately male.

Paradoxically, the triumph of the rhetoric of equality has taken place exactly at a time when the actual global conditions of women’s lives have worsened, and this rhetoric has been used to justify policies which will inevitably harm women.  Although war has proven a catalyst to women’s liberation, in the name of equality, war is justified on the grounds of its benefit to women. So too are policies designed to cut welfare and force women out to work, or plans to make men pay more for their childcare. In some cases, equality has been turned on its head and used to fight its own cause.

If feminism has hit a dead end, it is a reflection of its theoretical and practical inadequacies, rather than there being nothing left to fight for. Instead, ideas of women’s equality are going to have to link up with wider struggles if they are to be successful.  Amendments need to be made if we want to see an end to the exploitation which ensures that the needs of women are subjugated to the needs of the capital.  Nevertheless, the progress to equality is not automatic. The key to change is connecting many campaigns in which women and men are engaged to that alternative vision, that of equal opportunities, bringing women closer to their liberation. It will mean women can become the subjects of history, rather than its spectators, in changing the world for the better. The revolution has not yet been extinguished, but remains dormant, waiting for its re-ignition.